College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #77 to #75

77. Culture Club, Kissing to Be Clever (1982)

Malcolm McLaren knew this young bloke named George had the makings of a pop star. The cunning impresario recruited the androgynously styled club kid to share lead vocalist duties in a new band he was managing called Bow Wow Wow. After a few gigs where George performed under the stage name Lieutenant Lush, it was clear that the fit wasn’t right, reportedly because the other lead singer, teenaged Annabella Lwin, didn’t particularly enjoy sharing the spotlight. George was undeterred, or at least only mildly deterred. His version of making lemonade entailed forming a new band of his own. He brought together bassist Mikey Craig, drummer Jon Moss, and guitarist Roy Hay. After toying with the idea of naming their new quartet Sex Gang Children, one of several McLaren had on a list of attention-getting monikers, they instead decided on the far less provocative Culture Club as a nod to the markedly different backgrounds of everyone in the band. The pseudonym Lieutenant Lush was similarly consigned to the dustbin. The lead singer would instead be known as Boy George.

Kissing to Be Clever, the debut album by Culture Club, arrived in the U.K. just as its reggae-tinged single “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” hit the top of that country’s charts. With a slightly reworked tracks list, the album was released in the U.S. a couple months later, after some arguments with their North American label, Epic. The cowardly executives wanted to replace the cover image of Boy George, and the band admirably refused. Although Boy George undoubtedly faced bigoted mockery in some quarters for his look, overall the band’s collective embrace of simply being themselves without apology resonated more than that it damaged any commercial prospects. The album was a major success that generated a string of Top 10 hits.

More ambitious material would come soon enough. For starters, Culture Club mostly stuck with making nice little pop songs. “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” is a buoyant song of smitten sweetness, and “Love Twist” is so light and lithe that even the mid-song breakdown by fourteen-year-old rapper Captain Crucial, a novel addition at the time, seems natural as can be. “White Boy [Dance Mix]” builds to an effective relentlessness, and “White Boys Can’t Control It” is a horn-boosted romantic swerve that probably had a few of the warier, toxically masculinized record buyers fretfully checking the lyric sheet (“You know white boys (hard to swallow)/ You know white boys always follow (follow who?)”). The track that suggests the greater complexity the band had within them is “Boy Boy (I’m the Boy),” a slick dance song that carries some emotionally raw lyrics: “Words that pull the trigger/ Fear the laughing sound/ Haunts you to consider/ Love might turn you around.”

Culture Club rode the whirlwind of their quick success as best they could. They became mainstays of MTV — really one of the early defining acts of the network — and toured steadily before rushing back into the studio to record a quick follow-up. They had quite a start. If anything, they were about to get even bigger.

76. Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, Element of Light (1986)

“I’d rather promote myself than have somebody else do it because I believe in the product,” Robyn Hitchcock told Billboard shortly after the release of Element of Light, his second studio album with backing band the Egyptians. “When it comes down to some schmuck going, ‘Get down to Tower records and get the new, fabulous Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians album — it’s wacko, it’s sick, it’s British,’ I think that’s pretty bad.”

Hitchcock had jut signed a deal with Relativity, and the upstart indie label was committed to flooding the marketplace with the iconoclastic performer’s music. In addition to new albums, Relatively issuing new pressings of all the solo material Hitchcock had put out since the dissolution of his band the Soft Boys, in 1981. For Element of Light, the second new LP released under the deal, Hitchcock was a lead contributor himself to Relativity’s pitch, writing press releases and directing the requisite music video. If Hitchcock’s off-kilter sensibility made him an especially unlikely candidate for crossover success, that wasn’t going to dissuade him or the label from giving it their all.

Their shared enthusiasm was probably boosted by the overall strength of the Element of Light. Hitchcock’s esoteric instincts are on full display but channeled into tight, vibrant rock songs. The driving “If You Were a Priest” is only mildly sacrilegious in its salacious wordplay (“If you were a priest/ I would wait at least/ Up unto confession time and/ Crawl into your box”), and “Winchester” is a smart exercise in delicate psychedelia. His intricate songwriting is well-served by the concentrated playing found on the album whether the deliberate “Raymond Chandler Evening” or strikingly complex and unsettling “Never Stop Bleeding” (“I’m sorry for the future and I’m sorry for the past/ I’m sorry for the sailor who is lashed before the mast/ They never stop bleeding”). The tendrils of long influence are often apparent on the album — notably in “Somewhere Apart,” which sounds like the song John Lennon might have recorded if he were trying to coax a collaboration with the Jam — but the main impression, as always, if of Hitchcock as the truest of originals. Only “The President” feels like it’s not quite him. A sweetened up live recording, the cut finds Hitchcock commenting on contemporary politics, which he was usually loathe to do. Much more than any of the overt oddities on the album, it’s an experiment that doesn’t quite pay off.

As it turned out, Hitchcock’s time on Relativity Records wasn’t as long-lastings as both parties likely expected. If Element of Light wasn’t a mainstream hit, it did well enough on college radio to stir interest from major labels. The next time Hitchcock convened the Egyptians in a studio, they were part of the A&M Records galaxy of stars and expectations were higher than ever before.

75. Let’s Active, Cypress (1984)

The members of Let’s Active might have thought their debut full-length, Cypress, was cursed. Comprised at the time of guitarist Mitch Easter, bassist Faye Hunter, and drummer Sara Romweber, Let’s Active experienced sensational success on college radio with their 1983 debut EP, Afoot. Interest from the left-of-the-dial set was surely attributable to Easter’s status as co-producer of R.E.M.’s first few releases, including the EP Chronic Town and the albums Murmur and Reckoning. Curiosity can only get a band so far, though. Let’s Active had the goods, too. Afoot spent weeks on top of the college charts, and programmers were eager for more. Then, as the band was in the midst of recording Cypress at Easter’s Drive-In Studios home base, the building was struck by lightning, leaving much of the equipment damaged and inoperable. As omens go, it wasn’t a good one.

Easter pulled the studio back together, and the band persevered. If there was strain, Cypress shows little evidence of it. Its songs are spunky and bright, produced with a crispness wholly emblematic of Easter’s work. The material is direct without being simple, as heard on the prickly, drifty “Lowdown” and the mildly psychedelic “Ornamental.” The lucrative option would have been to emulate Easter’s collaborations with R.E.M. The chiming “Flags for Everything” is as close as they come. It’s telling, then, that the comparison rarely comes to mind. Instead, “Easy Does” has the jumpy delirium of Robyn Hitchcock, and “Co-Star” is more like the Byrds as a power pop act.

Easter usually handles lead vocals, but he occasionally cedes the microphone to Hunter, sometimes with noticeably improved results, as on the rambling rock song “Ring True.” Let’s Active is also shrewd about how they assemble the album, including the choice of the sole non-original among the track list. Bold, resonant “Blue Line” is a cover of a song originally released by U.K. band the Outskirts, hardly an example of the common college rock tactic of taking a pass at a familiar tune to hook student programmers with something that was probably a foundational contributor to their music fandom. It’s a gutsier statement, an acknowledgement of aspiration. ‘Forget earlier hitmakers,’ it seems to argue, ‘this is who we want to be.’ Intriguingly, it served as the album’s first single.

The bolt of electricity from the sky didn’t do in Let’s Active, but other forces did. Romweber quit the band during the U.K. tour in support of Cypress. A romantic partnership between Easter and Hunter soured not long after, and she also departed the lineup. Just like that, Easter was on his own, left wondering what to do next.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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